More than 800 GP practices across England are still using 0844 numbers, despite increasing pressure for surgeries to abandon premium-rate telephone lines, according to Government auditors.
A report from the National Audit Office into the use of the higher rate phone lines by the NHS and other public bodies found that 8% of GP practices still use 0844 numbers.
Practices in Yorkshire and Humber, together with the East Midlands, had the highest use of 0844 lines, but the NAO examined a sample of 60 higher rate lines used by GP practices and found that around half also listed geographic numbers as an alternative.
NHS England has said it supports Department of Health guidance which says that GP practices should not enter into any new contracts for telephone services which involve patients paying more than the cost of a geographical call to contact a practice. It announced earlier this year that it had asked local area teams to identify practices still using 0844 numbers, and pledged to ‘act upon’ the findings in due course.
While many GPs are tied up in contracts that last for up to seven years, one of the major telephone service suppliers, the Daisy Group, said last month that practices are able to change to a cheaper number within the terms of their contract.
The NAO report found that a third of all Government customer telephone lines used 084 numbers, despite efforts by the Government to reduce their use. The DH is the only major Government department to rule out the use of numbers costing more than the geographic rate. The Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Revenue and Customs had the highest proportion of higher rate numbers, the report said.
Callers paid £56 million in total call charges to premium numbers in 2012/13, it added, while changing all numbers to 0800 numbers would save callers £46 million a year and cost the Government £21 million a year.
The report said: ‘GP practices predominantly use geographic numbers. In our population of 10,716 GP practices in England, 91% (9,911) predominantly used geographic numbers and 8% (805) operated higher rate lines.’
Commenting on the report, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: ‘Each department needs to take a clear approach to using higher rate numbers and protecting vulnerable callers, and improve their understanding of how to get the best value from telephone services for both callers and taxpayers.’
Mr David Hickson of the Fair Telecoms campaign said: ‘We are supporting NHS England in its work to ensure that all GPs move swiftly back into compliance with their contracts. Offering an inferior service on a cheaper parallel number has no place in the NHS. We are astonished that any GP could consider offering a “two tier” service.
‘The option to offer the full service on a geographic rate number is available – without any penalty under the terms of existing system contracts – we cannot think why any NHS GP would choose to continue taking subsidy from its patients.’